Friday, May 14, 2010

The Critical Review

Writers are very sensitive to criticism. I used to think this was true only of fledgling writers like me, who realize they're only pretending to be writers and are sure the rest of the world will catch on one of these times and it will be really embarrassing.

But no. Recently I read a quote by some stratospheric author like Norman Mailer in which he or she said that they can still quote a critical review from two years ago but have forgotten all the positive reviews in the meantime.

Yesterday my mother-in-law came in the kitchen waving a Critical Letter that her friend Barbara had clipped out of the Mennonite Weekly Review, which has been serializing my books.

The letter was written by Laura H. Weaver from Evansville, Indiana. It read:
Dorcas Smucker, in "Escapes for Mom" ("Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting," April 26) calls a character in L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, an "old maid." I'm astounded to read that term in MWR or anywhere in 2010. The term was, indeed, used in the past, but it never was acceptable; it was always offensive. I'm thankful it was never used in my parental home (and I'm in my 70s); we never called my single aunts by that term, even in the 1930s and '40s.

I've noticed other negative portrayals of singleness in Smucker's writing. Several weeks ago she described a young woman who, after several relationships didn't work out, resigned herself to continual loneliness. Singleness does not mean loneliness. Many kinds of friendships and relationships exist. Let's affirm a more expansive view of life rather than this narrow, provincial one.

I have found myself giggling at this letter ever since. How better to describe How My Life Goes than to receive, not a review in Publishers Weekly taking me to task for something literary like inconsistent thematic juxtapositions, but some lady from Indiana writing to MWR about my using the words, "old maid."

The letter did spark an interesting breakfast-table conversation this morning. I was happy to see the children rise up in my defense, like children tend to do, where they can criticize me all they want but if someone from outside tries it, they all band together in my defense.

Paul said, "You can tell a lot about a person by what they react to." Which led, of course to speculation about why Ms. Weaver reacted to my depiction of singleness, which may be better imagined than described.

I did want to defend myself, briefly, when I first read the letter. I think LMM used the term "old maid" in The Blue Castle, and the part about the young woman resigning herself to loneliness was a direct quote from my SIL Rosie. But the rational part of me knew that most likely Ms. Weaver has a raw spot on her soul that needs compassion rather than logic.

And of course I will be very careful in the future about how I depict singleness.

* * *

Speaking of reviews, I learned a new term recently: piranhas.

Local writer Linda Clare's new book, The Fence My Father Built, was offered free in its Kindle form for a week or two. This led to a bunch of new reviews on Amazon including, Linda said, reviews from the piranhas. These are people who grab free copies of books and then write negative reviews.

There's a new word circulating among Amazon reviewers: "Meh." It means just how it sounds, an arrogant one-word dismissal of the book and everything in it. For some reason I find it really annoying, so you can all have a Paul-style analytical heyday here to figure out why I am reacting to this.

The typical Meh review goes: "Meh. awful glad it was free...would have been upset to have paid for it... ridiculous main characters never developed. silly plot simply restated again and again. do not waste your time."

One of my books got a Meh review over on Goodreads and that was more painful than fifteen letters to the Mennonite Weekly. If you're going to go to the trouble of reading a book and writing a review, have the decency to write something with substance. True, it says a lot more about the reviewer than the author, but it unfairly lowers the star rating for ever and aye.

But the Mennonite Weekly Review doesn't have star ratings for its serialized stories, so I can still smile about that critical letter.

Quote of the Day:
(Or: how conversations get derailed at the Smuckers)

Me: Emily was at an Iraqi supper on Sunday and an Egyptian supper on Saturday.
Jenny: Did she dress up like Cleopatra?
Ben: Cleopatra was of Greek descent!
Jenny: That was such a Bennish thing to say.


  1. Dorcas,
    Thanks for writing about we-of-the-sensitive-ego writers. Since I used the term "piranhas," which I chose because these reviewers are swimming, I've learned that many online communities refer to interlopers bent on causing trouble as "trolls." In my case, these one or two star raters definitely felt more like piranhas (or as the Travelocity gnome says, "Naughty fish!")than trolls. I won't lie--it hurts to have your work and your ego nibbled on. Yet I'm so over it. In fact, there's a word that describes my feelings about piranhas: Meh.

  2. Such honesty. Criticism is tough to accept and nobody wants it. Loved the way you wrote about it. One of my dreams is to be able to write like you!

  3. What a delicious post--lots of stuff to chew! I'm not as experienced as you, but I'd say you're being very mature and normal in your responses to the criticism.